Dhanbad, Bokaro, Singrauli … the coal mines are mining miseries for people living close to them

Coal mines produce fly ash in large quantity, making people living in these coal belts sick. Sadly, these people have been suffering from the ill-effects of coal mining for many generations

Mithilesh Dhar Dubey
| Updated: January 6th, 2020

“My son is only three-years-old. He suffers from asthma. Doctors say many children living here suffer from such diseases. We close our doors as soon as the sunsets. We don’t hang our clothes outside for drying,” said Heera Lal, 35, who lives in Chilkatad village in Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh.

The village is situated just a few kilometres away from the coal mines of Northern Coalfields Limited. People in the village have been suffering from the ill-effects of coal mining for many generations. There are 10 coal-fired thermal power plants operating in the Sonbhadra-Singrauli (Madhya Pradesh) belt. Together, the plants generate 21,000 megawatts of electricity and are the main suppliers to many parts of the country.

Coal mines produce fly ash – ash produced in small dark flecks by the burning of powdered coal – in large quantity, making people living in the belt sick. There are 269 villages in the Singrauli-Sonbhadra belt spread over an area of 150 square kilometres. About 13 villages are very close to the coal mining sites.

The southern region of Sonbhadra is known as the energy capital of the country.

Jagat Narain Vishvakarma has to walk using a crutch

“We drink contaminated water”

Jagat Narain Vishvakarma, who lives in Kushmaha village in Sonbhadra district, said, “My bones are becoming weak. I walk using a crutch. The doctor told me that I have a high amount of fluoride in my body because of which I suffer from fluorosis. There are many like me here, who are ageing prematurely.”

He added, “We get our drinking water from the Rihand dam. I have read a report that said the dam water has fly ash, which is life-threatening, but the coal companies are not taking the matter seriously.”

On October 6, 2019, the dyke (boundary wall of a water body) of a fly ash pond at a power plant of the NTPC in Singrauli district got breached, causing spillage over several acres of land. After the collapse, fly ash from the power plant spilled into the nearby Rihand dam, the largest dam in India by volume.

Report of Center for Science and Environment on Sonbhadra

As per a report of the International Journal of Advance Engineering and Research Development published in 2018, a total of 169.25 million tonnes of fly ash were produced in the country between 2016 and 2017. Of this, only 107.10 million tonnes were utilised. About 63 million tonnes (37%) were left unattended, and they got dissolved in air and water.

As per a government order, all power plants are to achieve 100% utilisation of fly ash. Ashwani Kumar Dubey, a Supreme Court lawyer, said: “These power plants are not bothered about people. In 2015, the government had set new standards for pollutants emanating from power plants. They were supposed to be implemented by 2017. Now, this deadline has been extended until 2022.”

Syed Ghori, project manager of the Khadia project (a coal mine area), said: “The coal block of National Coalfield is an open one. It is obvious that the ash will fly out. Yes, the ash that gets produced is in large quantity, but we make sure that it remains inside the boundary walls. We source it only after we sprinkle water on it.”

When Rural Connection asked Syed about the trucks that dispose of fly ash on the roads, he said: “We are working on that. We are going to put sprinklers on roads to prevent ash from leaking out. We have tied up with NTPC. Soon, we would be taking many effective steps.”

Coal produces fly ash in large quantity which is making people living in this belt sick

Leaves are covered with soot

As per a report of the All India Institute of Ayurveda published in 2018, high levels of toxic mercury were found in the nails and hair of people living in these polluted areas. It also revealed that plants as far away as 300 km from the region had a high level of mercury.

When Rural Connection visited the region, there was smog all around. We couldn’t spot a single green leaf. All the leaves seemed covered with black soot and ash. Locals said fly ash has affected crop production.

Shree Singaji Thermal Power Plant, which is coal-fired, is located in Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh. The project, owned by Madhya Pradesh Power Generating Company Limited (MPPGCL), was set up near the Narmada river. Vivek Mishra, who lives in Khandwa village, is a farmer who sows paddy and soybean in his 10-acre farm. He said, “Ash that flies out of power plants merges with dew-drops and gets deposited on our crops. Most of my fields are barren now. Officers from the Krishi Vigyan Kendra told me that farming is no longer profitable because whatever we produce will be toxic.”

The four units of plant together generate 1,100 MW of electricity a day. About 27,000 tonnes of coal are fired for generating one unit of electricity, resulting in 5,000-6,000 tonnes of ash, which increases the levels of air pollutants.

Water sources in nearby areas of Bokaro have been contaminated. Pic- Nitish Priyadarshi

It’s killing the rivers too

The Betwa river has been the lifeline of the drought-prone Bundelkhand region spread over both Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The Parichha Thermal Power Plant, about 25 km away from Jhansi district, is located on the banks of the Betwa river. People living here claim that ash can be seen on roads as far as 10 km away. So much ash gets accumulated on their terraces that people can easily write their name on it.

Bhanu Sahay, the director of Bundelkhand Nirman Morcha, who has raised this issue in the Supreme Court, told Gaon Connection that two villages – Richora and Pariccha – situated near the Betwa river and the power plant are in poor condition.

“The fields here are barren. The power plant has been draining the ash directly into the river. It is making people sick.”

He added: “This power plant only has one ash dam, which is filled  to the brim. The government had directed the power plant to utilise this ash, but it is not doing so. The Uttar Pradesh government has refused to give funds to set up a new ash dam. We should be questioning the officers, asking them where they are dumping the ash coming out from the power plants when the only ash dam is already full. It is obvious they are draining it in the river.”

Ramji, who lives in Pariccha village, said earlier he had many animals. Most of them have died. His fields are barren. “Earlier, I had cows, buffaloes, and goats. But all of them died. Later, I got to know that they had been drinking water from the Betwa river.”

Most people in the village have an eye infection. They are losing their eye-sight. Many people had to get their eyes operated upon. “Now, we don’t even touch Betwa’s water,” added Ramji.

Report of Centre for Science and Environment on Singrauli and Sonbhadra

According to the report of the Pollution Control Board published in November 2018, the total dissolved solids (TDS) in water in the river was in the range of 700 to 900 points per litre, while the total hardness (TH) was above 150 mg, which is very dangerous.

Even the ministry has accepted that the river water is in poor condition and a sewage treatment plant should be set up immediately.

The Damodar river, which flows across West Bengal and Jharkhand, is on the verge of extinction. Chemical effluents in large amounts from industrial areas such as Hazaribagh, Bokaro and Dhanbad districts of Jharkhand are released into this river. As per the data provided by the Jharkhand government, there are 10 coal-fired power plants along the banks of the river in the state. The plants consume 65.7 lakh metric tonnes coal per year, generating 8,768 megawatts of electricity.

Dr SK Ravi, a dermatologist from Bokaro, has researched the increasing pollution in the river and published a report in 2017. “The Damodar river is the lifeline of many districts other than Bokaro. But, the power plants located near it are polluting it,” he said.

Dr Ravi said the river’s water is so polluted that it can’t be used even for washing clothes, forget about taking bath in it. “One can suffer from various skin diseases if they use this water. The river water contains many harmful chemicals such as arsenic, fluoride, chromium, iron and cobalt. Arsenic could also cause cancer.”

Hazaribagh, Bokaro and Dhanbad in Jharkhand have many coal washeries that release water used to treat coal into the river. They generate about 30 lakh tonnes of debris per year.

As per the Jharkhand Pollution Control Board (JPCB), there are 94 industries in Jharkhand, of which, most of them are power plants and coal washeries.

Pollution level of rivers in Jharkhand

In July 2019, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered the shutting down of industries and factories in most polluted areas of Bokaro and Dhanbad.

Saryu Rai, the Food Supply Minister in Jharkhand, has been running the Damodar Bachao Andolan since 2004. He told Gaon Connection that there has been an improvement in the condition of the Damodar river.

“The pollution level in the river has decreased. There has been about 95% reduction in the debris flowing from the power plants into the river,” he said. “The government is working on utilising fly ash. Although there is a lot to do, there has been a significant fall in the pollution of Damodar river. A few companies throw debris illegally into the river, we are making them understand,” he said.

Shrestha Bannerji, who has been working with the Center of Science and Environment, told Gaon Connection that small drains connected to the Damodar river are also getting polluted. The villagers use the water, she said.

Dr Nitish Priyadarshi, an environmentalist and geologist at Ranchi University, said: “River Nalkari, which is heavily-polluted, is a tributary of the Damodar river. There’s a dam along this river, which releases toxic ash directly into the river. There’s no solution to manage this fly ash. And nobody follows the order of the court or the NGT. The common man has to suffer because of this mine dust.” He said people living in Hazaribagh are ageing prematurely. “They are falling sick.”